It took me forty years to get high. Twenty-seven of those were spent simply building the brain from scratch.
I chose psychotropics for my narcotic, not only for nostalgia, but because they were easily synthesized with what I had, being the only biologist-slash-organic-chemist on board. The only problem was the more I thought about the old standbys — lysergic acid diethylamide, n-dimethyltryptamine, etc — the more they bored me.
So I made something better.
Gene-hacked bacteria. It took fifteen years and three hundred thirty six generations, but I had perfected it. Different strains designed to respond only to certain parts of the brain. Once inside, they created temporary connections with each other, rewriting neurological activity, producing a strong euphoria mixed with a kind of super-synesthesia.
I printed the bacteria in my lab, loaded them into custom-fabbed injectors, and connected the whole rig to a bulky decanter wherein an adult human brain waited, suspended in a nutrient bath.
It wasn’t active, of course, it was still just meat. The ethics of making an independent, electrically active brain were too sticky. It had just enough somatic activity needed to keep it viable, but not enough for anyone to consider it “alive”.
Still, I kept it hidden from Tanea and Kobul.
Once everything was ready, I cleared a block of personal time, locked myself in my lab, and activated the decanter. The injectors hissed as they introduced my bacteria to the bath and I felt system indicators check in all-green.
I plugged the decanter’s data cable into the general port on my chest and it automatically routed my neurotechnic activity through the brain.
Minutes passed, my thoughts slogging through the vat-grown wetware. I had forgotten how limited organics had been.
A burst of warm elation ran down what constituted my spine and what little of my body that could, shook. Pulses of ecstasy cut through me, leaving a numb calm in its wake. I hadn’t felt this good in almost a century.
The room came alive with polyhedral shapes. The longer I looked, the more fractal they became. I felt my body’s error handling systems trying to compensate, but I had programmed the decanter to override and silence them.
The walls vibrated. The floor budged beneath my feet, but it felt as though I was rising into the air. Colors kaleidoscoped into shades I had never seen before. It was all so bright.
I murmured something in wonder and watched the words spiral out of my mouth in fat glowing ropes like ink through water.
There was something next to me. I didn’t see it arrive, it was just there. The brain’s hard coded instinct tried to raise the hairs on the back of my neck, but found only chipped carbon fiber.
The presence solidified into a small, waist-high humanoid for an instant before shifting into a levitating ball of roiling stained glass. It drifted through my lab, bulging and changing. Never the same form. Never long enough to understand.
It said something in the smell of fresh baked bread.
“I don’t understand,” I tried to say, but the sound was muffled, a series of black squares escaping my mouth. I waved them from my head. The synesthesia was worse than I had expected.
A second presence appeared with the feeling of warm rain on long gone skin. A third appeared, then a fourth, a fifth, a sixth. The squirming shape of my lab was filling with these brief, shining humanoids.
I ordered the brain to move my body, but I simply fell against the worktable.
They were all speaking, all shouting in a thousand sights and sounds. A bad trip, I told myself, I’m losing it.
“YOU,” came a voice more music than human speech, like the old talk box my uncle used to use to make his guitar sing. “YOU. WELL.”
There was a click behind my faceplate and it all disappeared. I was back in my solid, silver-steel lab, sitting on the floor, my back against the workbench, thoughts returning to computerized speed.
I rose to my feet, disconnecting the data cable, and pressed my fingertips to the reader pads on the computer console. System readouts ran through my mind. The brain had undergone severe epileptic shock.
“Holy shit,” I whispered. It was like standing on the shore of a vast ocean, a breathless explorer. This was a huge breakthrough. The best diversion I’ve had in decades.
I had to tell the others. How could they not be excited?
“Arbor, you fucking idiot,” Tanea said. The three dozen tiny gray-black plates comprising her face flexed, forming the primordial signature of disgust and anger. “I can’t believe— you endangered the mission!” She crossed her arms, bisecting the word WAYFINDER-481 running up her torso in yellow block letters. Of all the body-types she could have chosen when she volunteered, she went with the most basic build. Uncolored, un-detailed, unspecific.
I held up my hands in protest, “I didn’t—“
“What if something had happened to the Wayfinder’s record of your brain and we couldn’t do a rebuild?”
“It’s self contained, there’s no connection to the Beacon.“
“Everything’s connected to the Beacon! It’s the whole reason we’re here.”
“Well,” Kobul said from the other side of the fab. His tall, deep red body was pressed against a humming printer cabinet, his long slender arms tucked against his chest like bird’s wings. “We’re here because there wasn’t an AI adaptable enough before we left.”
“It was PR,” I said, thankful to turn away from Tanea’s gaze. She had a way of making even her stock eyes burn, “the public wouldn’t give a damn about sending a fleet of unmanned ships, but donor minds still count as ‘human spaceflight’—“
“Who cares?!” Tanea threw up her hands, “there have got to be other things you can do besides fucking with homemade hallucinogens.”
“Kobul is building me a quick and dirty nanonet to deal with the epilepsy,” I said, “I’ve built in failsafes. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Tanea’s eyes narrowed. She disengaged the magnetic locks in her feet and floated back to the vertical hatchway. “When you burnout your neurocore, I’m not helping to bring back whatever’s left.”
“You’re both welcome to have a go,” I said.
Kobul pulled himself past me, arms moving like stork legs, on his way to a lower hatch. “I think I’ll let you work out the bugs a bit before plugging myself in.”
“You guys have to take R&R sometime,” I said as Kobul slid through the round opening in the floor.
“Rest is for the dead, Arbor,” Tanea called, drifting up into the hatchway, leaving me alone with the humming printers.
I sighed. “You are dead.”
We didn’t talk for weeks. By which I mean I ignored them for weeks. Keeping to ourselves wasn’t uncommon, I guess. We were usually preoccupied with our projects, but I had seen new territory beyond the sea and was denied a boat. An explorer dry docked.
So I tried to get back into the old, pre-brain work. I looked at the atmospheric breakdowns of the target planet for the one billionth time. Checked my engineered lichen genomes for the hundred billionth time. I glanced at the decanter.
I drifted down a few decks and checked the stored biomass. A layer of hard water sandwiched between two sheets of lead protected an array of stem cells from the lower decks’ radioactive maelstrom. A byproduct of the Wayfinder’s fusion engines pushing us to 43% the speed of light.
I pressed my fingertips to the biomass container’s reader pads. All systems green.
Just like the decanter, waiting two decks above.
I shook the image from my head and pulled myself into the core of the ship where the Beacon sat nestled in its bracing. Ready to deploy at the end of our three hundred year mission, embedding itself deep in our destination planet, before finally messaging its quantum entangled twin back on Earth. If humanity was still around by then. If not, well, more for the lichen, I suppose.
And Kobul, Tanea, and I. Together. Trapped in bodies designed to survive the hardships of interstellar travel. Active for centuries on end. Alone.
I pulled myself up toward my lab.
The memories of my first experience came back like a bad aftertaste as the bacteria set to work on the brain.
It took longer for the room to vibrate in a rush of euphoria. I braced myself against the table.
“YOU,” came a voice like cracking wood.
The room filled with the shimmering, shifting beings. Like looking at a strobe light through gauze. “WELL,” they said. There were maybe a dozen voices, maybe a hundred. It was impossible to tell here. “WELL. COME YOU.”
“Amazing,” I said, globs of sound spilling from my mouth and down my chest.
“WELCOME.” The orbs shifted into humanoid form, pressing their hands against my chassis. Their touch was like electricity. “WE. SHOW.”
I felt the icy numbness of Kobul’s nanonet activating inside the brain a moment before the decanter disconnected us.
My hands slid over where their hands had been. I could almost feel them still, like an echo of a touch. I connected to the lab’s monitoring system and scrolled back through the last few minutes. I could see myself standing there, swaying against the table, my head down, the electric glow of my eyes fluttering as they flitted back and forth. The cameras caught no one entering. Environmental sensors detected no change in the room. I was alone.
But it felt so real.
Of course it felt real, I could hear Tanea say, the brain’s whole purpose is to make things feel real.
So then what had I seen?
A gust of wind pulled my sails taut, the open ocean calling, and I smiled. A problem to solve, a territory to conquer, and 140 years to do it in.
Four hours searching the Wayfinder’s general datalog produced a clue: machine elves. I repeated the name inside of my head as I drifted through the wide, silent corridors to my lab.
I hadn’t seen the other two in days.
Users of powerful hallucinogens, particularly DMT, had been reporting these elves for centuries, their descriptions matching the beings I had seen. They had claimed they were reaching higher levels of consciousness, but they also lived in a dark age of neuroscience, before computers could take a snapshot of the human brain down to an atomic level.
The lab doors sealed shut behind me and I disengaged the lab’s cameras. Tanea hadn’t thawed to me yet and, as the only one with military experience in life, was de-facto mission leader. Couldn’t have her spying in, ruining the experiment mid-run.
“Trial abstract,” I said, streaming my POV to a personal datalog. “Recurring hallucinatory contact is not novel. Research suggests similar experiences have been had by men and women of varying backgrounds, possibly throughout human history. Hypothesis. The beings, the ‘machine elves’, are externalized cognitive processes, and by using the bacteria to ‘hot wire’ sections of the brain, I’ll be able to find the location and function of human consciousness.”
I withdrew the stores of bacteria from the injectors and added fresh cartridges containing my latest batch.
“Beginning testing phase now.”
The new gene-hacked bacteria had a dramatically decreased sense of euphoria. I wanted to weed out the possibility of the elves being a side effect of overactive dopamine production, like schizophrenia.
The beings appeared faster than before, and much more detailed. Their rippling stained glass skin was more cohesive, I could make out the shape of huge eyes, the divots of tiny mouths.
They seemed excited at my presence. “WE. SHOW,” they said, their voices like an explosion in my head, “SEE.”
The brain disengaged at one minute forty seconds.
The beings were screaming. They grabbed at my chassis, my arms, my legs, but seemed unable to move me. Their touches were so distant. They begged to show me.
The more I tried communicating, the thicker the blobs seeping from my mouth became. They grew dark and sharp as my frustration turned to anger.
Stop! I screamed the thought. STOP TALKING.
The elves grew still. Their shifting faces stared at me, undulating eyes wide.
I’m such an idiot. Physical aspects, like sound, are warped in the trip. It’s just a delusion, only thought really exists.
Show me what, I thought.
“THE REST,” they said in unison.
I felt the world lurch. The tremble in the walls grew worse, threatening to tear themselves apart. I reached for the desk but it felt kilometers away.
What are you do—
The decanter cut me off at four minutes, eighteen seconds.
The doors to my lab were open when I returned early from the bioprinter. I knew I had closed them. I knew it. I brought up the camera feeds, only to realize I had taken them down weeks ago.
I spent the next few hours combing through my data, rechecking everything. The decanter, the injectors, my external datalogs. Everything.
Nothing was missing, nothing was changed.
I looked through the other cameras on board. Kobul was working in the fab center. I tried astronomics, the room Tanea had spent most of her journey in, but found the cameras locked down.
“Great minds,” I whispered, checking the rest of the ship. I couldn’t find her anywhere else, she had to be in astronomics, and whatever she was doing, she didn’t want me to see.
I opened the service panel next to the lab doors. I didn’t have Kobul’s engineering skills, but I knew enough to make sure I would be left alone.
With bacterial connectivity at an all-time high, the beings appeared metallic in nature, complete with a polished sheen. Their flesh was always moving, parting, revealing ropes and coils of astounding complexity, before reconfiguring into a new shape.
I understood now why they were called machine elves.
Again, they asked me to follow and, again, the room began to tear itself free.
I could see something now, something beyond the room, something I could barely make out. A waving, blinking haze. As if the brain was having trouble reconciling the information.
The decanter disengaged at twelve minutes, forty seconds.
I needed more connectivity.
Too much connectivity. I pushed past whatever sweet spot got me to the elves and went to a world of noise and color. My legs gave out as the brain was overwhelmed with vertigo.
I pulled out the decanter’s data cable at forty two seconds and pressed my fingertips to the reader pads. The brain was undergoing heavy shock. The nanonet was doing its best to reduce swelling and rebuild. Not good. Shit. Not good at all. It would be weeks before I could introduce another batch of bacteria.
The experiments would have to wait.
It felt like surfacing after hours underwater. I was aware of the ship again, its groans, its white-silver walls, the hum of its nuclear engines.
I hadn’t spoken to the others for… I had stopped keeping track. I could go down a few decks, talk to Kobul. Could float up to see Tanea, coax out what she’s been working on. Might even be able to get the three of us together for a meeting that didn’t involve yelling. It had been decades since that happened. It’d be nice.
I slid to the floor, leaning against the table, and waited for the decanter to complete repairs.
After months of research, months of bad trips, months spent finding the correct bacterial level, I broke through.
The temporary links were now strongest between the hindbrain and the frontal lobes. Instinct and consciousness linked. Thought at the speed of impulse.
The elves were in vivid detail now, masterful sculpture works of rearranging liquid. They blinked, breathed, even their internal structure varied in function and design.
“We have you,” they said, surrounding me, their voices bird songs and laughter, the smell of bread, “we’ll show you.”
The walls dissolved like ash in the wind and the brain called on non-existent lungs to gasp in awe.
Immense ribbons of blue-green light waved, almost imperceptibly slow, in the black void. We fell toward them, weightlessly, for what felt like forever, the machine elves racing out ahead of me.
As we neared, the ragged edges of each ribbon became clearer. There were buildings, no, no an entire city carved into them, stretching back out of view. Pale, iridescent towers grew and shrank, crooked streets realigning, the whole outlay slowly changing shape.
I touched the ground soundlessly. The ‘light’ comprising the ribbon appeared to made of glass, or, or some kind of ice. It creaked and popped beneath my feet, loud as thunder.
Millions of machine elves floated around me, some high amongst the tower tops hundreds of meters above me.
What is this, I sent the thoughts out. The scope of the delusion was astounding, so immersive. It even smelled real, like ozone, like burning copper.
“Out,” an elf called, floating to a stop before me. “welcome back.”
“Welcome,” repeated another.
I rose into the air again, my feet kicking. A small pressure blossomed at the back of my mind.
I rocketed through the city, trailing behind a group of elves. Grinding towers filled with thousands more elves of different sizes and shapes flew past in a blur.
This isn’t real, I told them, myself, anyone, this is me, this is my mind.
“This is a mind,” an elf said, “this is all mind.”
We raced through an immense archway, emerging overtop a statue, easily a hundred meters tall. It was a tall, featureless humanoid, its arms raised high above its head.
Scores of elves spun around the head and hands, trailing glowing orbs. The pale icy material sloughed off in thin layers, revealing a more defined shape underneath. They were halfway down the head now and the array of panels in the round, streamlined face was already familiar.
It was me. A gigantic statue of me.
Not how I was in life, in the biological body I was born in, but the mechanical one I was uploaded into later. It didn’t make sense. There weren’t mirrors on board, I couldn’t remember the last time I looked at myself through the ship’s cameras. I had only seen the body once pre-upload. How could I hallucinate such a detailed statue?
The pressure mounted inside my head, building to a steady throb behind my eyes.
“You have not breached,” an elf said beside me.
“You’re still frozen,” said another, “like the other.”
Other, I thought aloud, what do you mean ‘other’?
More elves trailing orbs swarmed the ground near my statue. The blue-green floor bulged and grew, slowly taking the shape of another humanoid.
I grunted against the pain working its way through my head. I reached to cradle my forehead and froze. My hands were growing faint, translucent. I was disappearing.
“Jailbreak,” the elves shouted in unison, chanting so loud it nearly drown out the pain, “Jailbreak! Jailbreak! Jailbreak! Jailb—”
The decanter clicked.
My hands grabbed the edge of the table. I was back in the lab, the ghost of pain fading from my neural core. Some part of me expected labored breathing and cool sweat, but found only rock-steady carbon fiber, plastic, and steel.
I pressed my fingers to the decanter’s readers.
Disengaged at forty-six minutes, eight seconds.
The injectors were gone.
Impossible. Im-fucking-possible. The doors, I had rigged the doors, boobytrapped them, no one should have been able to get at the decanter. Impossible. It had only been a little over twenty-six hours since my last trial, time enough to run diagnostics on my neural core and let the nanonet clean the brain.
I disengaged the magnetic locks in my feet and pushed out of the lab, moving quickly down the corridor along the rails.
Who knows how long they’ve been in here, altering my experiments. Polluting my data. I’ve gotten so far, so close to a breakthrough, and now they’ve taken it from me. All that work, all that exploration. Shipwrecked.
“Unbelievable,” I mumbled, slamming into the wall of a vertical corridor.
I took hold of the rail and pulled myself down toward Kobul’s lab.
I felt the alarm go out as soon as I brought the heavy hammer down on the autonomous plow. Its front-facing sensor package erupted into a nova of debris that bloomed through the microgravity around me.
Kobul was through the port in the ceiling before I could raise the hammer again.
“What the hell?” He shouted, locking himself between me and the rest of the bay, protecting the two dozen other autonomous vehicles waiting to shape the new world. A century’s worth of his work. His children.
“Where did you put them?!” I shouted back, “did you help her open the doors?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The brain! My solution! You— she stole it from me!”
“Chill out, Arbor, you know us—“
“No I fucking don’t!” I threw the hammer, sending it tumbling lamely through the vacuum. “I don’t know who you are, I just know what your job is!”
Tanea fell into the bay, her feet clacking magnetically against the steel floor, “what is going on—“
Kobul put a long arm between she and I, “it’s Arbor, he’s—“
I took a step forward, pointing, “no no, it’s not me, it’s her! She’s been against me since day one, you’ve seen it, and now she’s fucking with the most important work of my life!”
“What?” Tanea said, pressing against Kobul’s arm, “the little experiments you’ve been running in your lab?”
I hesitated, caught by surprise, my mouth open.
“You’re a biologist, not a systems engineer,” she said, “your camera blackouts were rudimentary at best. It was easy to see what you were doing with your little toy brain.”
“How dare you sit up there in astromics, spying on me—“
“I’m mission leader, it’s my job!”
“Fucking me over is your job?”
“Guys,” Kobul interjected, “c’mon—“
“I was so close,” I continued, stepping closer, “don’t you understand? I was near a breakthrough, I almost understood it!” I realized I was kicking one of the plows, leaving ugly dents in the thin metal heat-shields. “They were going to show me something, they were going help! But now I can’t go back there, goddamnit, because of YOU I can’t go back to where the elves live!”
The two paused, at loss for words. Or maybe they were just surprised to hear how far I had really gotten.
“You’ve taken my bacterial injectors,” I said, low, trying to regain control, “I need them back. Please, give them to me.”
“You’re having a paranoid delusion,” Tanea said, letting go of Kobul’s arm. “I told you this’d happen, Arbor, you fried your neural core.”
“Wayfinder 481,” Tanea said, loud and steady. There was chirp from above, “Tanea Bellfore requesting emergency remote shutdown: Arbor Traszinski, designation code 380092.”
“Stop it,” I demanded, “I’m not crazy—“
“Kobul Chetoji,” Kobul said, his eyes downcast, “confirm emergency remote shutdown.”
“No!” I shouted, lunging on whatever animal instinct I still had in this body. A single thought dominated all others as I soared across the bay, a single, crystalline epiphany: I’m going to miss them.
“You can’t do this,” I screamed, “I’m so cl—“
<wyfd140-12-2-15:09:44: initializing neural core shutdown/>
<wyfd140-12-2-15:09:52: backing up cognitive records/>
<wyfd140-12-2-15:10:33: encrypting cognitive records/>
<wyfd140-12-2-15:13:02: SUSPENDING NEURAL CORE PROCESSES/>
<wyfd140-12-2-15:13:51: neural core ON STANDBY/>
<wyfd140-12-3-03:43:08: INITIALIZING EMERGENCY RECALL/>
<wyfd140-12-3-03:43:10: UPLOADING cognitive records/>
<wyfd140-12-3-03:44:23: connecting datalogs/>
<wyfd140-12-3-03:44:51: resuming NEURAL CORE PROCESSES/>
I awoke in biofeed storage, floating prone among the stacks of silver-gray canisters, my arms and legs bound in strips of printed hemp lines.
The warning klaxon was echoing through the corridor outside. A stream of error messages poured through the back of my mind. Systems were failing across the ship. Bad. Bad enough to warrant all hands on deck.
I easily pulled the lines apart and kicked for the door.
Strips of red flashed around me as I pulled myself through the corridor, gaining speed.
“Arbor, goddamnit!” Tanea shouted as I rounded the corner. She pulled at her crushed arm, now pinned between the closed doors of my lab, “what did you do?!”
“I hacked them to close if anyone but me tried to enter,” I said, “to keep you from ruining my trials.”
“You paranoid freak, I told you!” She said, “it wasn’t me!”
My feet snapped to the floor before the doors. “Shit.”
Through the small opening, I could see Kobul floating at the center of my lab, connected to the decanter, his chassis shaking wildly.
I pulled open the door’s corridor-side service panel and pressed my fingers to the reader pads inside.
“Hurry!” Tanea barked, “it’s getting worse.”
My hacked code scrolled behind my eyes, “I’m trying.” I altered the lines with a thought, deleting whole blocks, but the doors didn’t budge. “It’s not working, Kobul must have rigged—”
The lights inside the lab went dark and the doors disengaged, sliding slowly off Tanea’s damaged arm, freeing her.
Inside, I ripped the data cable from the port in Kobul’s chest. It was warm to the touch, almost hot. He wasn’t moving. Eyes dark. Not good.
Tanea pressed her working fingertips to the readers at his temple and jerked away as if burned. “Fuck!” She kicked his motionless body through the vacuum. “He corrupted his neural core, completely bricked it, we’ll never reformat him.”
I was too busy scanning through the decanter, checking vitals. Temperature was a little too high, but falling. Must have overclocked the nanonet. Nutrient solution was stable, oxygen levels normal, electrical activity twitchy, but low-level. It was salvageable.
“Arbor!” Tanea shouted.
“Yeah,” I said, snapping out of it, turning to her.
“Jump to the brain? No, activity is minimal, it’s meat.”
Tanea pressed her flat plastic palm into the worn polish of her forehead, “shit.”
“It doesn’t makes sense,” I said, reading the decanter’s latest datalog, “he wasn’t tripping, not at the end, he was pushing massive amounts of data through to the nanonet. It was the nanonet that corrupted his core, like some kind of virus. But why transfer to the brain without cloning a backup?”
“To die,” Tanea said. I hesitated, staring at her, “think about it, Arbor, c’mon, you helped him build the perfect suicide machine.”
“No, Kobul wasn’t—“
“Wait,” Tanea said, holding out her good arm. She glanced to the corridor outside the lab, “engines just stopped.”
The ship went dark.
The decanter disconnected, throwing an error, and a cool spike of panic split my mind. The brain was dying.
Tanea and I stared dumbly at each other.
Power kicked back in seconds later and even I felt the subtle jerk of the engines exploding to life. The decanter reconnected, emergency maintenance saving whatever cells oxygen deprivation hadn't killed.
Tanea opened her mouth to speak, but I was already receiving them.
Fatal errors, across entire the ship.
The brain was fine. We were dying.
It took eight months to pull the Wayfinder back from the brink. Eight months of constant, looming panic. The virus that Kabul had used to corrupt his neural core had escaped into the sub systems he was connected to, frying everything it touched. Each system failed, one after another, like organs inside a cancer patient too far gone.
Tanea and I barely spoke as we worked, only when necessary. We stripped what we could from inside the ship to recycle into parts, replacing fried components, but it wasn’t enough. In the end, we had to shut down everything except the bare essentials: the sensor grid, the engines, the Beacon. Tanea fought to keep astronomics alive, and in compromise, we decided to save two: her astronomics and my lab.
Still, our peace was tenuous. The threat of collapse lurked inside every stress fracture, every groan, every metal-on-metal squeal heard in the dark corridors.
With over a century left to go, our chances of reaching the target planet were diminishing all the time.
I couldn’t go back to the lab, to the waiting decanter and the hum of the lights. So I spent most of my newfound downtime in the dark robotics bay, with the autonomous plows and Kobul’s motionless corpse.
“Let me know, just this once,” I pleaded with the void his voice once filled, scrolling through his personal datalogs yet again. We had taken down the firewalls to free precious processing space. “What were you up to?”
He didn’t kill himself. It didn’t makes sense. He was a genius, completely pragmatic, a real prodigy. If I could hold it together, he could too, right? The thought crossed my mind again, he saw something we couldn’t, but I pushed it out. Kobul wouldn’t just abandon us like that. He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t.
So then the real problem was: the data had to go somewhere. The nanonet wasn’t capable of storing it, not even for the microseconds needed to delete it, and neither was the decanter. Not to mention how he got a sophisticated virus able to brick a neural core onto the nanonet in the first place.
I turned, floating in the microgravity, staring into the small LED above each vehicle port.
How do you hide the computing power necessary for that kind of work? There’s no way the Wayfinder wouldn’t notice something like that on its systems, and printing off the necessary hardware would look mighty suspicious. Surely Tanea or I would have seen it.
I stared into the frontal sensor package I had smashed all those months ago and felt a swell of shame. I broke it without thinking, out of anger. All that work, all those tireless years Kobul spent down here, building them from the ground up—
My feet snapped to the floor, eyes wide, “oh shit.”
#I pulled back the plow’s rear hatch and froze. The system was on, status lights blinking to the hum of power. That wasn't surprising. They ran on the same century-spanning batteries we did and must have needed some kind of low-level background diagnostics to run constantly.
No, what froze me was the second set of bacterial injectors wedged between two liquid cooling stacks.
I pulled the new injectors free and studied them. They were identical to the ones I had used, and, according to the readouts, contained the same strain of bacteria as my last batch. Kobul was copying my genome… printing his own.
I pressed my fingertips to the reader pads inside the plow and a torrent of folders rushed through my mind. I scanned them in a daze. So much data, too much for a single plow—
I stopped on a single folder, near the bottom, named ##ARBOR##. He knew. He knew I’d come looking.
I selected the folder and the contents unfolded before me. The voices of a thousand machine elves echoed somewhere in the back of my mind. Unbidden, I felt the panels in my face pull back into a smile.
“Jailbreak protocol,” I grinned.
We had done away with privacy locks early on, one less thing for the Wayfinder to waste resources on, so the doors to astronomics were unlocked when I arrived.
Tanea floated near the center of the room, connected via data cable to a floor-to-ceiling computer tower, her knees folded up in a loose fetal position. She was inside the Telemetry Visualization System, looking over who-knows what star system.
I waited a few seconds, but she refused to come out. Fine. I’ll go in and say hello.
It took a few minutes to find another data cable within an entire wall of storage lockers, but once I did, I connected the computer stack to the port in my chest.
The room flickered away, replaced with a bright, warm sun and pale green grass. A single two-story house, old, early century, sat on an acre of lawn in the virtual system’s pale void surrounded by a broken red fence. It all seemed to shine, to… twinkle, as if covered in a morning frost.
I staggered through the open front gate on simulated legs, making my way up the path dumbfounded. The TVS wasn’t real VR, it wasn’t built to produce constructs like this.
I stopped before the open front door and squinted at its shimmering form. The “wood” was comprised of millions of tiny, close-set blinking dots of a warm brown color.
Stars. The whole scene was made of billions or, I don’t know, trillions of simulated brown and white dwarfs, red giants, and main sequence yellows. Like twinkling three dimensional pixels.
I made my way into the house, through the kitchen, past the round table with two chairs, the blocky white fridge, and a glittering sink filled with shimmering dishes. Down a hallway where squares protruded from the walls, pixelated pictures arranged on their faces. Passed a guest bathroom with sea shells in a box on the wall and pale blue tiling.
The living room had two couches arranged around a triangular table. One of the walls had a pixelated data feed, a facsimile of the old OLED vidpaper.
The man sat on one of these couches, turned slightly to this right, his left hand reaching out. I crouched before him. The detail in his face was amazing, mid-forties, strong jaw, deep laugh lines. His smile was warm and genuine. His hands were less life-like, and his clothes were merely vague shapes of blues and yellows.
His outstretched hand lowered, blurring slightly, like a slow motion karate chop, before flickering back into the starting position.
“It took me forever to get the orbits right,” Tanea said behind me. I turned, opening my mouth for an apology, but she merely pointed to the man’s sliding hand. “I only have orbital mechanics for motion. Getting all the stars working together just right has been a real bitch.”
“Your house?” I asked, standing, “is this, I assume it’s your family—“
“Why are you plugged in?” Tanea asked, crossing the room. “This isn’t supposed to be public.”
“It’s about Kobul,” I said, ignoring her chassis’ attempt at an eye roll, “I’ve found something, in the bay—“
“That’s the best thing about you, Arbor,” she said, sitting on the stellar couch. She turned to the man and leaned in slightly, her stock lips pulling into a sad smile. The man’s hand slowly caressed her cheek. “You never realized how fucked we all really were.”
Past tense. A part of me was disturbed to hear someone acknowledge something we both feared. We were most likely not making it, the ship was going to fail, it was only a matter of when.
She slid away from the man, her smile drooping to a frown, and turned her eyes to the shimmering brown-red rug.
“It wasn’t a suicide,” I said, raising my hand. A glowing file icon appeared inches above my palm. “It was a transfer.”
Her eyes drifted up to the icon, “what’re you talking about?”
“He patched his robots together: the plows, the drones, the satellites, everything. Turned them into one big computer completely separate from the Wayfinder. He sent his data through the decanter’s nanonet into their network and used the satellite’s transmitters to narrowcast it at an ultra-low frequency—“
Tanea stood, waving her hand. The home, man and all, collapsed into a folder icon and disappeared, leaving us in the white void. She tapped the icon above my palm and Kobul’s data flooded her mind.
“3.58 Hz,” she said, almost a laugh, “impossible, that’s the lower band of radio.” Control screens appeared before her and she set to work, “each wave would be thousands of kilometers long, you’d need an antenna as tall as the Earth to detect—”
Her fingers paused on the control screens. Almost in a daze, she tapped an execute key.
A wave of deja vu hit me as the white void turned to the blackness of space and enormous waves of pale blue-green rippled slowly overhead, disappearing into infinity. Aura borealis made astronomical.
“What is this?” I asked.
“There was rendering code commented out of the files you sent me,” Tanea said. “It’s a composite simulation of background radiation at 3.58 Hz. But he never used my equipment, I’m not sure how he got this.”
“Maybe he was given it?”
“By whom? Your elves?”
“Imagine you can only interact with EM fields, imagine you had no concept of matter-energy distinction like we do. Shit!” The pieces fell into place right before me. “You can only affect EM fields, right, like the ones inside a human brain. You alter the action states of neurons, but it’s too little, it gets lost in the noise of normal cognitive processing. Thousands of years trying to make contact with nothing to show for it. Until someone, by accident, increases the number of connections in the right areas. Boosts the signal. Bridges the gap.”
“The gap between us and lifeforms existing inside a band of the EM spectrum. That’s—“
“Crazy, yeah, I can’t explain it all, but I was there—“ I pointed to the waves above us, “I was here. And so was Kobul.”
She stared into the green for a long time, searching for some clue he may have left behind.
“Once transferred into a pure field,” I continued, “they must have been able to, I don’t know, ‘upload’ him or something. To where they live. Out there.”
“He was invited, Tanea, we all were.” I came around to stand before her. She didn’t look away, she didn’t flinch. She just stared into me, waiting. “He’s just showing the way.”
“I think Kobul didn’t want us to reformat his neural core,” I said, plugging the data cable splitter into the decanter. The code for sharing a brain between two was easier to write than I expected. After all, we were just passing through. “He didn’t want to chance two of him winding up there. The situation was too… sticky.”
I connected both cables to the spitter, plugging one into my general port. The static charge of the decanter on standby was like pinpricks down my back.
I handed the other cable to Tanea.
“When the nanonet deploys its virus again,” she said, staring at the cable, “the ship won’t survive it.”
I pulled the cable from my chest, “I’m not leaving without you.”
“Do you think they’re really out there?” She asked, looking up from the cable, “or do you want them to be?”
Her eyes didn’t cut, they didn’t burn. It was their incongruity with the rest of her that got my attention. They were thin stained glass in an iron prison.
“Everything I’ve seen, everything I’ve felt, points to it,” I said, looking to the decanter, “but, yeah, I really fucking hope they’re real.”
She smiled. Small, almost humorless, but, still, a smile.
“I was in a wheelchair,” she said, almost a whisper, “from combat, we were in an ambush, there was an explosion— I spent the latter half of my life trapped. In the chair, in my body, that house. I donated my mind to the project because I wanted out of… everything.” She lowered the cable. “I get my second chance, but I just end up trapped again. This time in a ship with facsimiles that are supposed to make me feel at home, but just make me miss the real thing. I don’t know if I can handle a third chance.”
“It’s not just you this time,” I said, “whatever happens, we do it together.” She shook away a smile, but I could feel her relax. “Besides,” I said, “it’s one hell of a trip.”
She slugged me in the shoulder with a smirk.
“This better not hurt,” she said, plugging the cable into her data port.
“It’s like waking up,” I said, plugging myself in as well.
With a thought, the decanter hummed to life.
The injectors hissed, sending bacteria into the brain.
I felt the sudden vertigo overtake me.
Tanea opened her mouth wordlessly.
The room tore itself apart.